After traveling more than nine years and 3 billion miles of outer space, it all comes down to shooting a ship the size of a piano in the middle of the 60-90 miles target zone between Pluto and its satellite Charon. So says the New Horizons Glen Fountain project manager, it's like hitting a golf ball from New York to Los Angeles and hitting the hole.
Control points on Earth in the laboratory of applied physics at Johns Hopkins University near Baltimore, monitor the optimal span of the most distant planetary body that spacecraft have ever visited.
New Horizons will rush close to them at a breakneck speed of almost 9 miles per second, and will be about 7,750 miles from Pluto and 18,000 miles from Charon on Tuesday.
For more than 13 hours, the ultimate goal will be reached. After passing through the Pluto system (in addition to Charon, Pluto has four more small satellites) New Horizons will look back on the critical series of radio studies and solar experiments.
“We have to fly directly behind the shadows of Pluto and Charon in order to look at their sunset and get to know all the peculiarities of the atmosphere of distant cosmic bodies,” said Deputy Project Leader Katie Olkin, from the Boulder Research Institute in Southwestern Colorado. During this time, powerful radio signals from NASA's Deep Space Network will be sent through Pluto's atmosphere and, if everything goes well, New Horizons will receive them for further analysis.
"This is a very important time," said Olkin.
New Horizons will continue scientific observations all the time, but on Tuesday there will be a pause in which the ship will transmit a short message that it has survived the meeting. This signal, traveling at the speed of light, should reach the Earth about 41/2 hours later.
In general, project managers found out that the chance of a spacecraft colliding with space debris near Pluto is 1-to-10,000.
“It can bite us,” said lead scientist Alan Stern. "We took the measured risk known to us. Our team was looking for trash that could be in the system. We didn’t see anything significant."
"Nevertheless, the output of New Horizons to radio communications before and after the closest approach tomorrow evening will be a little dramatic," added Stern.
“We are flying into the unknown. This risk haunts all pioneers,” he said.